What makes a game a game of the year?
Not innovation. Not graphics. Not gameplay. Not even a combination of all three.
What makes a game of the year is the experience it delivers. The way it leaves you feeling when you're done, if you're every really done with the game.
Both delivered what I felt was a refined experience not only for the franchise, but for the genre. Both also delivered meaty multiplayer that left me playing it long after the relatively short, but gloriously engrossing story-driven campaign had ended.
The stories for both games were polished, captivating experiences, if one didn't play them in an attempt to derail the ride. And that's what the best shooters are, interactive roller coasters, experiences that marry cinematic artistry with the illusion of control. But only the illusion.
As with all modern video games, you have to buy into the experience to enjoy it.
Where Halo: Reach's story was a march through pre-Halo history, Black Ops was a game that delivered an unsettling experience almost completely free of pre-mission filler and unwanted chatter. Its story sprang at you in the sort of unexpected cuts and intense camera angles reminiscent of a Robert Rodriguez film.
And as the story wound to a startling, though perhaps not completely unexpected ending, technical surprises and gameplay innovations began to creep in.
But it was Black Ops' multiplayer that eventually sold me on which game to choose for my nominee. That's not just because Black Ops successfully rode on the coattails of Modern Warfare, a game that redefined, reinvigorated multiplayer first-person shooters.
The game took the best of Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 and added things like the ability to gamble your hard-earned in-game currency in matches.
There is no game I spent more time playing in 2010, more time enjoying than Black Ops. It's the game that most impacted me with its short, direct story and its endlessly addictive online play.
Owen Good's Reply
I've espoused the same argument Brian makes here, which is basically that fun is the best measure of something that is, after all, a game. It's also the most subjective. Multiplayer combat shooters are not something I prefer, and it's this mode where Black Ops distinguishes it above all other games.
Black Ops' singleplayer campaign was only semi-engaging. It featured some outstanding scenery within a fascinating period of world history, let down by a story and mission structure that are no role models for game-of-the-year aspirants. I felt it was all a noisy, facile, confusing stroll through a series of set pieces and Quicktime events.
I do see the addiction quality of Black Ops' multiplayer and found it more playable than its peers. The addition of bot training partially addresses their biggest drawback, that you only learn through the frustration of trial-and-error and a zillion meaningless deaths. But I don't see where the game is remarkably different from its shooter brethren. It's just the biggest one this year. And it shouldn't get an award for participation.
Luke Plunkett's Reply
For a few levels in Call of Duty: Black Ops, you fly a helicopter. That was pretty fun.
Everything else? Redefining? Innovating? A polished story? Nunh unh. It was like playing through Michael Bay Presents: The Cold War, a disorienting series of explosions and curse words punctuated by lots of corridors, bad voice acting and me exclaiming "what the fuck am I doing in Hong Kong?"
That stuff wasn't much fun. And that was everything else about the game. So no, I won't be voting for this as our game of the year.
Going into this game, I was expecting a title about the Cold War. I got a game set during the Cold War, but not about it. There isn't paranoia, there is confusion and screaming until its flustered and blue in the face. Instead of Robert Rodriguez camera angles, I would've preferred John Frankeheimer ones.
And when the game wants to evoke moments in time, it falls back on cliches. Hey, you're in Vietnam! Listen to Fortunate Son, a 'Nam anthem that's been done to death in game after game, movie after movie. Black Ops is tired old hat.
I do agree that this is a Call of Duty that finally does have a decent enough story (though, one that cribs from Fight Club) that one can somewhat follow. But, so what? Shouldn't the games always have had stories? By saying this is Game of the Year, I feel like we are setting the bar too low. Solid Call of Duty. But GOTY? No way.
Are you kidding me?
I spent the better part of 20 minutes stuck in a corridor shooting a never ending wave of enemies, with no visible indication whatsoever that simply crossing the hallway into a certain room was what I needed to do in order to progress the story along. If the enemy bodies hadn't continuously faded away my squad and I would have been smothered in dead Russians.
I do not want to be smothered in dead Russians. This is not my Game of the Year.
Michael McWhertor's Reply
If we're to judge the worthiness of Call of Duty: Black Ops as game of the year based on how it left us feeling at its narrative conclusion, then my own result — apathy mixed with confusion — is likely to kill any chance of me supporting it with my vote.
If we're to measure it in fun, Treyarch delivered such an enjoyable multiplayer shooter that I could consider it. This is some of the best video game junk food of 2010. Combine the thrill of high-energy death match with amusing zombie-slaying, gambling and combat training, Black Ops easily delivers some of the best value of the year.
But even then, Black Ops' strongest suit, its multiplayer component, felt only like a well polished version of an experience I'd had a year prior with Modern Warfare 2.
Finally, I'll have to disagree that this game was free of "unwanted chatter." Surely the Australiaskan accent of Sam Worthington and the abrasive, repetitive between-level interrogations can be categorized as that.
Stephen Totilo's Reply
Did most of Team Kotaku play Black Ops with frowns on their faces? Come on, guys, Black Ops was fun. Noisy? Yeah. Cliched? I can tolerate at least one game per year letting me shoot down a launching Russian rocket with a big gun.
In 2010, I did prefer other shooters over Black Ops — Singularity for its superior story, Halo: Reach for its more Stephen-friendly online matchmaking.
But let's be populist for a second: Black Ops is the game for millions of people. They love it. They flood YouTube with videos of themselves playing it. Was there any game that convinced as many players to part with as much money in 2010? Credit savvy marketing. Credit the preceding Call of Dutys. But surely Black Ops earned some of its massive success itself.
Black Ops isn't my GOTY mainly because it felt disposable. The game doesn't linger in my memory. I don't think about it. The magic it wove for the weekend I played it keeps fading.
Brian Crecente's Rebuttal
While Black Ops had its hiccups, chief of which was an expectation by the developers that gamers will actually want to move forward in the game and not linger in a firefight, at least none of those issues came looking for you with a donkey's stubbornness.
And the notion that Call of Duty: Black Ops is cliched and Red Dead Redemption isn't is beyond laughable. Both fall back on plot twists seen before, though with Black Ops at least I didn't see it coming from half a game away.
At least in delivering its not entirely unique story, Black Ops found a new way to push us deeper into the game and new pacing to keep things interesting. More importantly, the developers delivered a lasting gaming experience with multiplayer that, as Mike says, combines the thrill of high-energy death match with amusing zombie-slaying, gambling and combat training.
No 2010 Kotaku game of the year contender gave us an entirely new experience, they are all iterations on their predecessors, but Call of Duty: Black Ops at least provided a platform for lasting play.
I've played no other game this year more and none has provided me with as much entertainment. How can it not be the Game of the Year?
This is the third of four debates surrounding our final choice for 2010's game of the year. All four will run this week. The winner will be announced Monday.